christian

Review – Ys IX: Monstrum Nox

So I just beat Ys IX. It was… better than I was expecting, but not as good as it could be. It takes nearly every feature and system from Ys VIII – features and systems, mind you, that were new and specifically built to work in that game’s very particular setting – and brings them whole hog into this new game, with a very different setting. Suffice to say that it doesn’t really work.

For example, in Ys VIII it made sense to earn rewards for mapping out the island, since it was literally uncharted. But it seems insane to be rewarded for mapping out a centuries old city (under the guise of “finding the places that tourists would be most interested in”).

Similarly, it made sense to have a crafting system on an island with no shops, and a bartering system that allows you to refine low grade crafting materials by essentially trading for them. But Ys IX has so many different shops – with so much good gear – that forging your own weapons usually isn’t worth it (meanwhile, you refine items by interacting with a magic lantern. They didn’t even try to come up with a halfway decent cover story for keeping the feature).

Thankfully, you can ignore many of these holdover systems (or, in some cases, you only have to apply a minimum amount of effort to get anything out of them). In the end, they’re not harmful or time consuming, but they also don’t need to be there.

The fact that they do exist is telling. But before we talk about why, let’s establish a little bit of context.

Ys VIII was a pretty big deal for developer Nihon Falcom. It was popular – popular enough to be ported to four platforms in the span of three years (with a Stadia version coming out last year, for whatever that’s worth). It arguably brought in a whole bunch of new fans to the series, which doesn’t sound like a bad thing, until you consider why it did, and who these fans are.

In theory, Nihon Falcom is still the “little studio that could,” cranking out niche games and doing their own thing while remaining independent. In practice, however, their output from recent years has been increasingly devoted to pandering to the specific kind of otaku/weeb who will pay top dollar for anything that provides them with cliches, cheesecake, and waifus.

Oh good, animal ears on a young woman.

The most obvious example of this shift can be seen in the Kiseki games. The original “Trails in the Sky” trilogy looks like a simple, generic 90’s adventure anime. But the latest slate of games, Trails of Cold Steel, look like a harem anime that takes place in a military academy. Even without playing any of the games, I can tell there’s been a notable shift in… um… priorities over time. But if you don’t believe me, I’m not the only one who feels this way.

Also there is some VR thing. I’m honestly too afraid to do any more research on that.

Now consider the fact that Falcom seems to prioritize new Kiseki games, while Ys continues to come out at a fairly slow clip. I don’t think this is a coincidence. As soon as the Cold Steel games began being localized, I noticed a sharp uptick in Kiseki-related chatter across the Internet. The pandering, it seems, has worked out very well financially for Falcom.

But this is not to say that Ys is immune from similar changes. Without going into a full review, suffice to say that Ys VIII throws away a lot of what made the series special in favor of becoming a big, bloated, generic action RPG. One with lots of waifus, who spend a lot of time crushing on Adol (though the male characters also spend a lot of time praising him). And because the game takes place on a deserted island, these are by and large the only character interactions you can look forward to. 

Also, this happens.

Having played all of the previous Ys games, I can tell you with certainty that this kind of stuff simply did not exist in earlier games. In fact, I was impressed at how Falcom resisted such blatant fanservice. As a long time fan, this shift in tone was jarring to say the least.

But as I said before, it sold a heck of a lot of copies, and it brought in a lot of new fans.

But these new fans are a fickle bunch. I know the type. They don’t want the studio to try new things. I believe they’d rather see Falcom become a one trick pony, delivering the same formless animu pandering time after time.

And yet! If they fail to do so, they risk alienating a huge chunk of this new fanbase – and if experience tells me anything, it’s that it’s a matter of “when”, not “if,” you do something to alienate them.

Meanwhile, by the time that happens, most of Falcom’s older, dedicated audience will have already given up, leaving the company with virtually no customer base.

Basically, Falcom needs to make a choice. They can either sacrifice artistic merit for record sales (by catering to the new fans), or they can stick to their guns and (probably) struggle to keep the lights on (by appealing to the smaller, older fanbase).

And this is where Ys IX comes into play. I think the game is proof that the studio hasn’t quite made up its mind on which direction to go. It has all that vestigial baggage from Ys VIII because I think the studio was afraid. Afraid that if it wasn’t present, that all the new fans that came in via VIII would complain. But they clearly weren’t interested in it, so they made it largely skippable.

The bloodiest Ys game yet.

Then there’s the fact in many other ways, Ys IX feels like a return to form. It’s shorter than VIII by quite a lot (I’d say it’s roughly half as long). It focuses much less on Adol and far, far more on the city and its residents (and when it does focus on Adol, it does a much better job of fleshing him out as a person). The combat system is identical to VIII, but not quite as grindy. Battles are faster and easier in a way that reminds me of the combat systems of the older games. There’s also a renewed focus on the history of Ys’ alt-European setting. 

There’s still some pandering to be found, but it’s largely ignorable. It feels like a classic Falcom game again. My (wholly unsubstantiated) theory is that they did this on purpose, as a test of sorts. If Ys IX fails to sell as well as VIII, I am certain we’ll see nothing but pandering for the foreseeable future. However, if it does do well – or at least well enough – there may be a chance for a course correction.

Cynically, my gut already knows what’s going to happen. If that’s the case, my days as an Ys fan may be numbered. At least I got one last (mostly) pleasant adventure out of it.

Please do our advertising for us:
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

14 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
jay
Admin
jay
5 months ago

The unreasonable part of me (so most of me) thinks this series sort of ended with the PC Engine version of IV. Top down bump combat defined it to a large degree and since then the series seems to not know what it is. A red haired guy named Adol and a blue haired guy named Dogi may not be enough to tie it all together.

Also, shame to see these games follow so many others into pandering bullshit. Seems to just be a matter of time and everything Japanese you liked becomes this. Poor Valis fans went through this over 15 years ago.

Christian
Christian
5 months ago

I’d agree with you Jay, except I like the three games they made with the Ys VI engine (especially Ys Origin, which ironically is the one game with an original/new cast)

jay
Admin
jay
5 months ago
Reply to  Christian

I liked it VI, too, and it was the first review I wrote here I think.
https://videolamer.com/ys-6-ark-of-napishtim

TrueTallus
TrueTallus
5 months ago

Yeah, Jay, I’m with Christian that Ark of Napishtim and Oath in Felghana were both outstanding (though I couldn’t STAND Ys 7, so maybe my Ys tastes are just as narrow). Thanks for the link to the AoN review, I’ll have to check that out!

To your actual review, Christian, it’s interesting to hear your thoughts since I basically threw my PSP down in a fit of swollen thumb nub rage near the beginning of Ys 7 and haven’t been back until I picked up and (mostly) enjoyed Ys 9 late last year. Some of the things you mentioned did seem odd and unnecessary (crafting in particular), but I didn’t know the backstory. Having missed the Trails of Cold Steel games entirely, my exposure to ‘modern’ Falcom with Monstrum Nox didn’t feel that different from how I remembered my earlier Ys adventures, in a great way (although I did feel the slogs through the prison were like like slow-mo nails on a chalk board pacing wise). Ys has felt a bit like an anachronism to me in a wonderful way, lightning quick combat, non-conflicted main character, genuine hope in the cast story arcs and narrative, each character getting a name and different things to say, simple equipment systems – all stuff that feels delightfully out of place in the more dour, bloated, complex current gaming landscape.

I will say that in my limited recollection and experience, Ys has always had a clueless protagonist fanservicey thread. Most women who meets Adol seem to fawn over or admire him, and the fairies in Ark of Napishtim were capitalizing on barely-dressed sexy monster girl appeal back before it was cool. Ys 9 didn’t seem too far afield from that same feel/aesthetic (with the exception of the Doctor/Thief lady), but from the stuff you’ve linked to, it does look like Falcom could be mulling over a change to something more exploitive. Here’s hoping that doesn’t happen :)

Christian
Christian
5 months ago

Great comment TrueTallus.

You’re correct in your assessment that the series has always had a bunch of women fawn over Adol, but it always seemed like it was puppy love more than anything. It was as chaste and innocent as you could possibly get (though I’m sure now someone is going to link me to some sort of official promo artwork that blows my claim out of the water).

You’re also correct about the Fairies in Ys VI, but I’d say that that was one particularly egregious instance out of six consecutive games. At the time, I don’t think I would have seen it as a sign of any sort of trend.

Even Ys VII wasn’t too bad in that regard (though I agree with you about the overall flow of the game being suspect). In my mind, the abundance of fanservice really only began in Ys VIII and Memories of Celcetta, which just so happened to be back-to-back releases. Just to give you an example, in Celcetta, you go from “girl crushes on Adol” to “girl’s father wishes Adol could marry his daughter, and she’s perfectly cool with the prospect”

jay
Admin
jay
5 months ago
Reply to  Christian

Deciphering actual intent of Japanese designers and artists from 30-40 years ago seems impossible, but the dark truth may be the hardware was what held back old games from being more perverted. CD systems (Turbo Duo) seemed to immediately usher in porn games. So it’s possible my fond memories of less sexualized women in old games are merely a byproduct of a lack of advanced technology. Once they found the pixels, busts grew.

I guess the implication of this idea that women were always supposed to look like this in these games is that they were always meant for weebs on some level. Discerning how much more or less pander-y games are is still a fun endeavor but is greatly complicated if you assume designers always wanted to objectify women.

Christian
Christian
5 months ago
Reply to  jay

I guess that’s possible. But then I think back to Ys Origin. That game does have some scantily clad ladies, but:

a) It’s kind of hard to tell in most of the character portraits that show up in the game
b) There is a hint of romance, but it is mostly implied, and also (seemingly) mutual. Most the characters are stone cold professionals that are there to do their job.

At the very least the game’s tone lacks any desire to pander.

Meanwhile, contrast this to Ys VIII, which has sexy noblewoman, sexy nun who eventually lets her hair down and tears her skirt off, sexy blacksmith who has her shirt buttoned down despite working around hot metals, and hot mom who somehow has nine children and who straight up kisses Adol at one point.

And don’t forget hot governess who comes from Ys IV/Memories of Celceta who has a super crush on the protagonist.

We can agree to disagree, but I feel like there’s a level of intent and implication in those character designs that’s absent from earlier entries. In Origin, the closest any character gets are the villains, and I think that’s a simple example of the “Evil is sexy” trope.

Also, the PC Engine was capable of rendering large character art. If they really wanted to, they could have made this look far different if they wanted to. I still feel like there was a change in Falcom’s priorities over time, and I think the the popularity of the Kiseki games in the 2000’s and 2010’s is partly responsible.

Last edited 5 months ago by Christian
jay
Admin
jay
5 months ago
Reply to  Christian

I don’t have strong feelings on this series’ descent into T&A, and certainly Sara from Book I was a classy lady. Just making a larger point that possibly only I wasn’t always aware of but really thought about while playing the Fire Emblem 2 remake – a lot of sexy lady stuff would have existed back in the day if the technology were there to allow it.

Edit after looking at those links – wow, yeah that does seem to be a lot.

Last edited 5 months ago by jay
Christian
Christian
5 months ago
Reply to  jay

That’s fair.

I guess it does matter to me, in the sense that if there is truly a shift in priorities from developers like Falcom, it may mean an end to “traditional” Ys games – and while I wouldn’t kick and scream if that happens, I would be at least somewhat sad, especially if they go away in favor of making easy money from horny weebs.

(and now that you mention it – Fire Emblem is another series where this hypothesis is worth testing)

Last edited 5 months ago by Christian
TrueTallus
TrueTallus
5 months ago
Reply to  Christian

I can’t speak to older Ys (to my shame), but I’m certainly with you Christian that there’s levels/intentions of fan service, and that the Ys I’ve played has been more focused on making the player feel dashing than making them the star of a harem fantasy.

To Jay’s wonderment about whether a technological advancement is the reason behind egregious T & A, I’m not so sure. There are certainly times were I’ve seen weird swings in the fan service presentation in a series that have nothing (I assume) to do with technology. I never touched Suikoden 4, but when I played Suikoden 5, for example, I was struck by the weird change of tone in that regard. Going from Suiko 2 with one token barely clothed sorceress (Jeanne) and an unspoken crush on the main character, to an entire CAST of improbably dressed women in Suiko 5 who desperately pined for the player character (including his sworn protect, various world leaders, his aunt, and his own kid sister) was an odd experience. The exact reasons for why Konami chose to tow that line aren’t clear to me, but I can only assume it was a conscious decision and didn’t come down to the game designer’s finally having the tech in 2006 to properly render your prepubescent sibling and her retinue stripping down for a cleansing ritual :P

Suikoden 5 was actually a great game in my opinion, but Konami certainly appeared to be attempting to shape it for a specific kind of player base. Presumably they thought the same people who needed to be appeased by a 6 character battle system and a slavishly accurate recreation of isometric 2d visuals in 3d would snap at the chance to have 8 out 10 women in Falena look and act like they’d be at home in an Illusion game. If a franchise known for something other than titillation has to play that card, I think it makes sense to be concerned that the developer may be loosing track of what made the games great to begin with.

Last edited 5 months ago by TrueTallus
chris
Admin
5 months ago
Reply to  TrueTallus

I was just thinking about this, actually. Suikoden 5 also has this weird thing where female characters get introduction cutscenes, even if they’re largely innocuous (like Marina, the innkeeper who crushes on Belcoot) and many comparatively major events (like wrap-up of minor arcs) don’t even have voice-acting. Felt pretty male-gazey to me.

I don’t recall anything in Suikoden 4 doing much of it, and previous series entries were relatively tame in that regard (3 actually had the reverse, where all the knights were trying to woo Chris, and she was having none of it and pretended to be most interested in her squire to throw them all off). I really hope Eiyuden Chronicles does less of that.

Really sad, since Suikoden 5 is otherwise great. I loved the gradual unwinding of events that you weren’t actually witness to, and the Godwin/Barrows dichotomy early on feels fairly relevant today…

Disappointed to hear Ys is going this direction. I haven’t played the most recent couple but Seven was okay. Didn’t get very far in Celceta.

pat
pat
5 months ago
Reply to  chris

chris, who is one of the main characters, also looks like this for much of the game, which is definitely not pervy:
comment image

Christian
Christian
5 months ago
Reply to  TrueTallus

more focused on making the player feel dashing than making them the star of a harem fantasy.

I think this is a great way of putting it. I agree with you that Ys VIII in particular doesn’t make you feel like you’re in a harem fantasy perse, it also feels like it’s trying to do more than make you feel dashing. It’s got a certain flavor that feels like bleed-in from other parts of Falcom’s output.

But the fact that (mostly) diminished in IX is a potentially good sign.

pat
pat
5 months ago

i do agree the games have gotten pandery, and also somewhat bloated over time. in keeping with your theme of mechanics that didnt need to be imported from VIII are raid/nox battles. they weren’t my favorite in VIII but made some sense since you were trying to carve an existence from the wilderness, so you could have to defend your camp. but they felt like superfluous padding to me in IX and placed too much emphasis on pure combat. i play the games for the sense of adventure you get from exploring unknown lands and wandering around a city and its prisons just doesnt do it for me. combat in games before VIII was mostly to add friction to that exploration.

i also wonder if oath in felghana and memories of celceta were constrained a bit by being a remake of III and reimagining of IV, respectively. not sure there is much to draw on from that but could figure into the evolution somehow.

V is the only numbered entry i haven’t played (any of, there are like 3 versions of IV, ive only played 1). not sure how much more energy i have for the series unless something changes.